Bookword in Naples

For months and months now I have been feeling restless, wanting to get away, away from Covid, from daily life, from staying at home and making soup (as a friend said). Since March 2020 I had spent just 4 nights from home, when I visited my sister in Cumbria. I enjoyed that very much, but by the New Year I wanted more. I am not claiming any specialness in these feelings. Readers of this blog may well have had similar emotions.

So earlier this year I booked myself onto a cultural tour of the ancient world around Naples. I imagined that it would either be cancelled or postponed, but in the event neither happened, and at the end of April, I took my Covid Pass, my clothes for warmer places and my masks and flew to Naples.

The tour focused on Greek and Roman archaeology around the Bay of Naples: Pompeii, Herculaneum, Paestum and its temples, Pozzuoli Amphitheatre, and, where Pliny the elder died, Castellammare dell Stabia. Dominating the bay was Mount Vesuvius. 

Forum, Pompeii with Vesuvius in the background

For as long as I knew about it, I had wanted to visit Pompeii, and was in awe of the volcano and its eruptions. The one that buried Pompeii in ash and pumice happened in AD79. More recently it erupted during the Second World War. We were assured that it always gave warnings of any impending eruption, but it is acknowledged to be active. So, we climbed up it and looked into its crater, and found a steaming vent, which was a little alarming, but the worst that we experienced.

For this post on Bookword I present some books and poems that relate to Naples.

Pompeii: the life of a Roman town by Mary Beard

Told with her trademark verve and questioning style, she reveals the daily life of those who lived in the town before the eruption, casting a critical eye on the archaeological evidence and what people have made of it. It’s a very readable guide. It’s very much more than a guidebook, more an introduction for an intelligent reader who doesn’t want to be fobbed off with the myths that surround the ruins. 

Pompeii: the life of a Roman town by Mary Beard, published by Profile Books in 2008. 360pp

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

This is a novel about two girls growing up in the poorest district of Naples in the ‘50s, narrated by one of them. The Neapolitan Quartet, of which this is the first volume, has been very successful. The attraction, I believe, is in part the attraction of soaps: family drama, struggle against circumstances, many characters, the development of the limited cast of characters, and several vivid and violent scenes.

Readers of the post on this novel in December 2021 will know that I am not a huge fan and you can see my original comments in full here.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, published in English in 2012 by Europa Editions. 331pp. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag

Another novel, this one by the renowned intellectual Susan Sontag, published in 1962. It is a long time since I read it, possibly more than 20 years, and my copy seems to have disappeared from my shelves, probably in a ruthless cull to send it on to other readers through Oxfam.

I remember that it concerned the triangle, possibly the ménage à trois, of William Hamilton, Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples, his beautiful wife Emma, and her lover Admiral Lord Nelson. William Hamilton studied volcanoes, and perhaps is one of those few men whose is famous because of his wife.

Although praised by eminent critics for its literary qualities, I’m afraid that my memory of this book has largely escaped.

The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag, available as a Penguin Modern Classic.

Pompeii by Robert Harris

And this third novel I might read following my visit. It’s set in the town if its title at the time of the eruption and was recommended by Richard E Grant in his BBC programme Write around the World.

The story follows a water engineer, Marcus Attilius Primus, who has arrived in Pompeii to deal with the problem of the failing water supply. He gets caught up in a corrupt plot, an assassination attempt, love for Corelia, and of course the eruption. 

Pompeii by Robert Harris, published in 2003, and available in paperback.

In the footsteps of Shelley:

It is said that Percy Bysshe Shelley loved this area, but he wrote Stanzas Written in Dejection, near Naples. Poor man, his dejection outweighed the wonders of the place:

Alas! I have nor hope nor health,
Nor peace within nor calm around,

You can find the full poem here.

And Primo Levi made connections to other deadly events:

Primo Levi was imprisoned in Auschwitz as an Italian Jew during the Second World War. He survived the Holocaust, but his writings reveal the damage done. A poem he wrote is translated from the Italian as Girl of Pompeii or Girl-child of Pompeii. The poem links the plaster cast body of a fleeing child at Pompeii with the Holocaust, through Anne Frank and the Atom Bomb, through a schoolgirl in Hiroshima. 

Since the anguish of each belongs to us all
We’re still living yours, scrawny little girl …

You can find several translations of this poem on the internet.

A fresco in Castellammare

I feel restored by my trip to Italy and by the literary connections made there. I might even reread Virgil’s Aeneid. 


Filed under Books, poetry, Reading, Reviews, translation, Travel with Books, Travelling with books, Women in Translation

10 Responses to Bookword in Naples

  1. Jennifer

    How lovely Caroline! I’m so glad you had a good trip. I’ve visited Pompeii and Herculaneum And found both very moving, as you can imagine these people from ancient times as living breathing human beings.

    I enjoyed the Robert Harris book. Many of his descriptions are based on the accounts given by Pliny the elder. I’m also a great fan of the Neapolitan quartet.

    I had the best ice-cream I’ve ever tasted in Naples. It was hazelnut and all subsequent ice-creams have been a disappointment.

    • Caroline

      Sorry Jennifer, this message went to spam, so I have delayed in reading it.
      I so agree about the ice creams. I had two while I was there, both well up to Italian standards.
      I might give the Robert Harris book a go this summer, while the memories are still fresh. Richard E Grant and his Pompeii guide said that the Pomnepiian scenes were very accurate.
      See you soon. C xx

  2. What a wonderful trip – most jealous! And thank you for the bookish suggestions – Primo Levi was such a powerful writer.

    • Caroline

      It was very refreshing. I enjoyed it greatly.
      I have read most of Primo Levi’s books, but I was not aware of his poetry. I find the Girl of Pompeii very moving.
      Thanks as always for your comment.

  3. Am so envious, I’ve wanted to visit that part of Italy for so many years. I know Pompeii is the big attraction but I’m fascinated by Herculeum. How do the two compare?

    I shall have to look at your comments on the Ferrante. I’ve not read it (the saga aspect didn’t appeal) but then I saw the Richard E Grant programme and he made it sound much more interesting

    • Caroline

      Based on my short visit I would say that Pompeii was very full of tourists, which gave it a kind of inhabited feel. It is much bigger than Herculaneum. Both are full of interesting arc archaeological details, but they were covered in different materials at the eruption, and had different functions before their destructions. Herculaneum’s buildings survived better, with their second storey, to some degree. It was much quieter, and should not be thought of as Pompeii-lite. Both are worth the visit.
      On My Brilliant Friend, I too took note of Richard E Grant’s praise, and that’s when I reread it. But I am not that enthusiastic about it still. I think the programme fed my longing to return to Italy, during Lockdown, and led to this recent visit.
      Be warned: walking up Vesuvius was also very popular with tourists, not like a hike on Dartmoor for example. More a tramp in the company of hundred of other people. And you have to pay. Who owns Vesuvius?
      Thanks for your comment. Caroline

  4. Lynda Haddock

    I so envy you this trip. And thank you for the suggestions. ‘My Brilliant Friend’ was recommended to me by my daughter and I enjoyed reading it and discussing it with her.

    • Caroline

      I think envy might be in order. I certainly enjoyed myself, and just being away. How lucky I am to be able to do that.
      I am not such a fan of Elena Ferrante, but I know that others get huge enjoyment from herr novels. Lovely to share with your daughter. xx

  5. What a great list of books to underpin a trip to Naples and beyond. A really good way to imagine lives and footsteps past…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *